Michigan State University

Bosse, Sara

Winnifred and Sara Eaton were sisters, daughters of a Chinese-born mother and an English-born father, and grew up in a large family in Montreal, Canada. Winnifred Eaton was a very successful fiction writer who, by taking on a Japanese identity, both exploited the public's craze for "Japonica" at the time, and obscured her Chinese heritage during an age of anti-Chinese sentiment and policies. She wrote more than a dozen novels, numerous short stories, and screenplays. Her cookbook, Chinese-Japanese Cook Book, and the articles on which it is based, which first appeared in Harper's Bazaar and Ladies' Home Journal, was her first collaboration with Sara. Sara, who may have done very little of the writing, was a painter who lived out her life with her German artist husband, Karl Bosse, in New York. Two years after publishing the cookbook, Eaton wrote Marion: The Story of an Artist's Model, based on Sara's life. Another Eaton sister, Edith (1865 - 1914), was a journalist and fiction writer who used the pen name Sui Sin Far. Recognized for her literary achievement in presenting turn-of-the-century North American Chinatowns, and giving voice to the Chinese immigrant's story, her book-length collection of stories, Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), is considered the beginning of Chinese-American literature.. Another sister, Grace (1867 - 1957), was the first Chinese-American female attorney in Chicago; she went to her law practice every day until her death at age 89.

Winnifred Eaton's choice to adopt a mixed Japanese-English persona was a calculated move in a life driven by the desire for fame and fortune. Born Lillian Winnifred Eaton, the eighth child of fourteen (twelve of whom lived to adulthood), the writer grew up in poverty. Her father, Edward Eaton, the son of an English silk manufacturing family, met Eaton's mother, Grace Trefusis, while in China on business. They were married in 1863 and lived in Shanghai before moving back to the Eaton residence in England in 1864. In 1867, after moving the family to New York, Edward lost his fortune, possibly through speculating on Wall Street. After a visit back home, the growing family moved to Montreal in 1872, where Edward pursued a poorly paid career in painting and occasionally worked as a bookkeeper at the city's cotton mills. Eaton's mother had been educated in England, perhaps as the ward of missionaries, and knew how to read and write English. She even wrote a serial story for the Montreal Witness, about life in China and her native city of Shanghai.

Like all the children in her family, Winnifred Eaton began working to contribute money for the family when still in her early teens. (Even years later, she continued to send money to the youngest of her siblings.) At age twenty, she moved to Jamaica and worked for a small Canadian-owned newspaper, Gall's News Letter, for six months. She wrote her first novel, Miss Nume of Japan, in 1899 while working as a stenographer in Chicago, and it was during this period that she took on her Japanese persona. Having never been to Japan (though her father traveled there), she learned of Japanese culture through books. The 1895 novel Miss Cherry-Blossom of Tokyo, by John Luther Long -- who later wrote the novel Madame Butterfly - strongly influenced her. Many of Eaton's novels were romances about the typical troubles of cross-racial love, though some of the plot twists were quite original. In 1901, she published her second novel, A Japanese Nightingale as a serial in a woman's paper, and with the proceeds moved to New York City, where Harper and Brothers published the book the same year. It received good reviews, and catapulted Eaton to fame. William Dean Howells praised it lavishly, writing, "There is a quite indescribable freshness in the art of this pretty novelette . . . which is like no other art except in the simplicity which is native to the best art everywhere." A Japanese Nightingale, like many of Eaton's novels, was printed on wide-margined paper decorated with Japanese motifs, and contained full-color Japanese illustrations. To reinforce her mythic Japanese origins, Eaton posed in a kimono for publicity photos. The book sold well, was translated into many languages, and was turned into a lavish Broadway play in 1903 and a silent movie in 1918.

During the next fifteen years in New York, Eaton wrote seven more "Japanese" novels, as well as a humorous novel about an Irish maid entitled The Diary of Delia (1907), a semi-autobiography entitled Me, a Book of Remembrance (1915), Marion, mentioned above, and many short stories. In 1914 she wrote her only cookbook, Chinese-Japanese Cook Book, co-authored with her sister Sara. It is likely, says Winnifred Eaton's biographer, granddaughter Diane Birchall, that Sara's name appears simply to account for the knowledge of Chinese cooking - the writer Onoto Watanna would know only Japanese cookery. Though the authors claim in the Preface that the Chinese recipes are " . . . secret recipes handed down from Vo Ling, worthy descendant of a long line of noted Chinese cooks, and himself head cook to Gow Gai, the highest mandarin of Shanghai," Birchall is sure this is just a hoax. She writes:

By the time Winnifred and her sister cooked up this cookbook, Winnifred was thoroughly used to presenting a façade that bore little or no relation to the truth. . . . She approached the project, like everything else, with an eye for what would sell. Winnifred and Sara were original enough in their thinking to write one of the first Asian cookbooks in the United States, and they were canny enough in their marketing practices to be sure they obtained payments from top magazines first.

According to Birchall, Eaton was awful at cooking Chinese dishes. "She boiled everything until it was inedible, and her husband Frank Reeve flatly refused to eat it, insisting on plainer fare."

Eaton was married twice. She had four children with her first husband, Bertrand Babcock, a reporter in New York City, whom she met and married soon after arriving in New York; eventually, Babcock's alcoholism forced Eaton to seek a divorce in Reno in 1916, where she met her second husband, Frank Reeve, a businessman who was also seeking a divorce at the time. The new family moved to Calgary, where Reeve pursued cattle ranching, stock brokering, and finally, oil drilling, which brought the couple incredible wealth later in life. In Calgary, Eaton wrote three more novels. In the 1920's, she turned her hand to writing screenplays, drawing on her exotic romantic style to produce scripts for the films Shanghai Lady (1929) and East Is West (1930). After her contract in Hollywood expired, she returned to Calgary, where she was active with literary organizations and theater groups. In the nineteen forties, when the Japanese were vilified and America sent Japanese citizens to internment camps, she abandoned her claim to a Japanese heritage.

Though modern readers may judge Eaton negatively for her long-running ruse, in particular the falsehoods at the expense of her family, such as claiming in her own sister Edith's New York Times obituary, that Edith's mother was not Chinese as Edith publicly maintained, but a Japanese noblewomen, some commentators see the deceit as a measure of the fearsome hostility at the time towards a mixed race, Chinese woman daring to call herself worthy of society's notice and praise. Her sister Edith engaged the battle head-on; unfortunately, her poor health left her literary output scant compared to her sister's. Eaton indeed possessed the strength, energy and prolificacy to make the most of her ruse; using the vapid language of commercialism embraced today, one would say Eaton's deceit was the honest work of a good marketer. The real test, perhaps, is whether any of her cookbook recipes make delicious food.

Sources

  • Birchall, Diana, Onoto Watanna, The Story of Winnifred Eaton. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

     

  • Bosse, Sara and Onoto Watanna, Chinese-Japanese Cook Book. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1914.

     

  • Honey, Maureen and Jean Lee Cole, Eds., Madame Butterfly and A Japanese Nightingale. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

     

  • Ling, Amy, "Watanna, Onoto, also Winnifred Eaton," The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. Cathy Davidson & Linda Wagner-Martin, Eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

     

  • Matsukawa, Yuko, "Eaton, Winnifred," Reference Guide to American Literature. 4th Edition. Thomas Riggs, Ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.

     

  • Watanna, Onoto, The Heart of Hyacinth. Introduction by Samina Najmi. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

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